A half century after the Watergate scandal set off a scramble to push big money out of American politics, big money is bigger than ever. Reformers keep trying to set up barriers, and politicians keep finding ways around them, often with the help of the courts.
But there is one consolation: We can force disclosure of political spending, so that voters can at least try to connect the dots.
New Jersey is poised to make huge progress on that front, finally. A strong bill to pry open the books of dark money funds is suddenly on a fast-track for approval in both the Senate and Assembly, after collecting dust for more than two years. Gov. Phil Murphy says he supports the bill as well.
What changed? It would be nice to think that these guys had a sudden change of heart. But the truth is a bit darker. Both Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney were embarrassed by their reliance on these funds in two separate incidents this month.
First, a group of senior advisors to Murphy, including his campaign manager, Brendan Gill, broke their promise to reveal the names of donors who contributed to a dark money fund they use to promote Murphy's agenda.
The group raising those funds, New Direction New Jersey, is technically independent of the governor. But that's a fiction. He appears in its TV commercials, and last week he belatedly admittedthat he solicits donations as well. He says that he wants the group to voluntary release the names of donors, but when they refused, he did nothing to break ties with them, or even criticize them by name.
So, we still don't know who sent those checks to Team Murphy. Was it unions with contracts to negotiate? Lawyers seeking state work? Murphy won't help us find out.
Next came Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester. Four months after he pushed through an outrageous and widely criticized bill to subsidize PSEG's nuclear power plants by $300 million a year, the company sent a $55,000 check to a dark money fund associated with his chief ally, George Norcross. It was revealed only because PSEG mistakenly sent the check to the wrong fund, one that must reveal its donors.
Now, Murphy and Sweeney need to do some penance, and the pending bill was just the thing. Sponsored by Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, and Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker, D-Mercer, the bill would put New Jersey on an equal footing with states like Connecticut and New York. It would force dark money funds like 501c4's to reveal their donors and expenses.
Sweeney said he wants to modify the bill to include money spent trying to influence the operations of government, not just campaigns. He also wants to make it retroactive to the start of 2018, a legally questionable move. Both changes deserve close scrutiny. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said he supports the original bill in principle, and it studying those changes.
Hearings are expected soon, with a possible vote in both houses at the end of this month. That's lightning speed by Trenton standards. To avoid mistakes, it's vital that the committees call Jeff Brindle, of the Election Law Enforcement Commission, who has pushed for this change for years and helped the sponsors craft the bill; and representative of the Brennan Center for Justice, a leading national voice for campaign finance reform, whose people also helped in the crafting.
This is great news. Voters deserve to know who is pulling the strings backstage. If that happens because Murphy and Sweeney see fresh reason to restore faith in their integrity, so be it.